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The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President

The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President

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The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President

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Sep 29, 2009


Taylor Branch’s groundbreaking book about the modern presidency, The Clinton Tapes, invites readers into private dialogue with a gifted, tormented, resilient president. Here is what President Clinton thought and felt but could not say in public.

This book rests upon a secret project, initiated by Clinton, to preserve for future historians an unfiltered record of presidential experience. During his eight years in office, between 1993 and 2001, Clinton answered questions and told stories in the White House, usually late at night. His friend Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch recorded seventy-nine of these dialogues to compile a trove of raw information about a presidency as it happened. Clinton drew upon the diary transcripts for his memoir in 2004.

Branch recorded his own detailed recollections immediately after each session, covering not only the subjects discussed but also the look and feel of each evening with the president. The text engages Clinton from many angles. Readers hear candid stories, feel buffeting pressures, and weigh vivid descriptions of the White House settings.

Branch's firsthand narrative is confessional, unsparing, and personal. The author admits straying at times from his primary role -- to collect raw material for future historians -- because his discussions with Clinton were unpredictable and intense. What should an objective prompter say when the President of the United States seeks advice, argues facts, or lodges complaints against the press? The dynamic relationship that emerges from these interviews is both affectionate and charged, with flashes of anger and humor. President Clinton drives the history, but this story is also about friends.

The Clinton Tapes highlights major events of Clinton's two terms, including wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, the failure of health care reform, peace initiatives on three continents, the anti-deficit crusade, and titanic political struggles from Whitewater to American history's second presidential impeachment trial. Along the way, Clinton delivers colorful portraits of countless political figures and world leaders from Nelson Mandela to Pope John Paul II.

These unprecedented White House dialogues will become a staple of presidential scholarship. Branch's masterly account opens a new window on a controversial era and Bill Clinton's eventual place among our chief executives.
Sep 29, 2009

Sobre el autor

Taylor Branch is the bestselling author of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63; Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65; At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968; and The Clinton Tapes. He has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

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The Clinton Tapes - Taylor Branch


At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–68

Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963–65

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63

Labyrinth (with Eugene M. Propper)

The Empire Blues

Second Wind (with Bill Russell)

Blowing the Whistle: Dissent in the Public Interest

(with Charles Peters)


Wrestling History with the President


Simon & Schuster

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Copyright © 2009 by Taylor Branch

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information, address Simon & Schuster Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.

First Simon & Schuster hardcover edition September 2009

SIMON & SCHUSTER and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

For information about special discounts for bulk purchases, please contact Simon & Schuster Special Sales at 1-866-506-1949 or business@simonandschuster.com.

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Designed by Nancy Singer

Manufactured in the United States of America

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available.

ISBN 978-1-4165-4333-6

ISBN 978-1-4165-9434-5 (ebook)


Official White House Photograph: 1, 2, 3, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17

William J. Clinton Presidential Library: 4, 8, 9

Illustration by Jason Snyder: 5

Taylor Branch: 6, 10, 12

The White House Historical Association: 7

For my mother, Jane Branch

And for five inspirations to write history:

Hannah Arendt, Shelby Foote, John Hope Franklin,

Garry Wills, and Emmett Wright Jr.


ONE  Twin Recorders

TWO  Reunion

THREE  The Truman Balcony

FOUR  Culture Clashes: From Bosnia to a Haircut

FIVE  Passages: NAFTA, China, Whitewater

SIX  A Mother’s Death and the Special Prosecutor

SEVEN  Clinton and the Press

EIGHT  Missiles in Baghdad

NINE  Supreme Court Choices

TEN  Foreign Travels

ELEVEN  Hillary’s Dream

TWELVE  Haiti: The Brink of War

THIRTEEN  Yeltsin and the Gingrich Revolution

FOURTEEN  Tirades: I Really Let Them Have It

FIFTEEN  Bailout, Bombs, and Recovery

SIXTEEN  Oklahoma City

SEVENTEEN  Girding for Showdown

EIGHTEEN  Pope John Paul II: Tell Me How You See the World

NINETEEN  The Murder of Rabin

TWENTY  Triumph and Fury: You Live to Have Only a Few Days Like That

TWENTY-ONE  Family Feuds: From Greenspan to Saddam Hussein

TWENTY-TWO  Primary Season

TWENTY-THREE  Terrorism, Welfare Reform, and the Chicago Convention

TWENTY-FOUR  Reelection 1996

TWENTY-FIVE  Bittersweet Renewal

TWENTY-SIX  Whitewater Tapes: On the High Wire

TWENTY-SEVEN  I Think They’re Pretty Good Rumors

TWENTY-EIGHT  The Jones Case

TWENTY-NINE  Chinese Land Mines

THIRTY  Buddy and Socks

THIRTY-ONE  Lewinsky

THIRTY-TWO  Impeached


THIRTY-FOUR  Kosovo, Columbine, and Kashmir

THIRTY-FIVE  To the Millennium: Peacemakers and Treason

THIRTY-SIX  On to New Hampshire


THIRTY-EIGHT  Jerusalem and the Three Ps

THIRTY-NINE  Deadlock 2000: This Election Is Tight as a Tick

FORTY  Farewell







Session One

Thursday, October 14, 1993

President Clinton found me waiting alone in his upstairs office called the Treaty Room, testing my tiny twin recorders on one corner of a massive but graceful Victorian desk. It contained a drawer for each cabinet department under Ulysses Grant, he observed, when Washington could be run from a single piece of furniture. The president invited me to begin our work in another room, and I gave him sample historical transcripts to look over while I repacked my briefcase. He scanned to lively passages. An anguished Lyndon Johnson was telling Georgia senator Richard Russell in 1964 that the idea of sending combat soldiers to Vietnam makes the chills run up my back. A flirtatious LBJ was pleading with publisher Katharine Graham for kinder coverage in her Washington Post. Clinton asked about Johnson’s telephone taping system. How did it work? How did he keep it secret? For a moment, he seemed to dare the unthinkable. White House recordings have been taboo since their raw authenticity drove Richard Nixon from office in 1974. Most tapes of the Cold War presidents still lay unknown or neglected. By the time scholars and future readers realize their incomparable value for history, these unfiltered ears to a people’s government will be long since extinct. To compensate for that loss, Clinton had resolved to tape a periodic diary with my help.

The president led west through his official residence. Its stately decor would become familiar and often comforting, but for now my nerves reduced the Treaty Room to a blurry mass of burgundy around tall bookcases and a giant Heriz rug. Ahead, walls of rich yellow enveloped a long central hall of movie-set patriotism that clashed for me with Clinton’s solitary ease. He wore casual slacks and carried a book about President Kennedy under an arm. His manner betrayed no pomp, and his speech retained the colloquial Southernism we had shared as youthful campaign partners in 1972, before the twenty-year gap in our acquaintance. I suffered flashes of Rip van Winkle disorientation that a lost roommate had turned up President of the United States. Now, instead of rehashing the day’s crises with co-workers at Scholz’s beer garden in Austin, Texas, I followed Clinton into a family parlor next to the bedroom he shared with Hillary. The plump sofas and console television could have belonged to a cozy hotel suite. Red folders identified classified night reading, marked for action or information. Crossword puzzles and playing cards mingled with books. On one wall, there was a stylized painting of their precocious daughter Chelsea, then thirteen, dressed up like a cross between Bo Peep and Bette Midler.

We sat down at his card table. I retrieved two items to help me prompt him with questions: a daily log of major political events, compiled mostly from newspapers, and a stenographer’s notepad listing priority topics for this trial session. With the microcassette recorders placed between us, I noted the time and occasion for the record. From the start, Clinton’s history project adapted to obstacles beyond the lack of precedent or guidance. We raced to catch up with a daunting backlog from his first nine tumultuous months in office. He sought to recall a president’s firsthand experience, but the job intruded within minutes in a call from his chief congressional liaison, Howard Paster. When I started to leave for his privacy, the president beckoned me to stay. He jotted down the names of five senators, asked an operator to find them, and told me the Senate was voting late that night on Arizona Republican John McCain’s amendment requiring the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Somalia.* Only eleven days ago, forces loyal to Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid had shot down two Black Hawk helicopters, killed nineteen Rangers, and dragged American corpses through the streets of Mogadishu in a searing disaster that Clinton likened to JFK’s Bay of Pigs. Now the president said he must convince five swing senators or suffer a political defeat that he believed would injure the country.

* President Bush had dispatched 25,000 U.S. soldiers the previous year in a U.N. humanitarian mission, Operation Restore Hope, designed to relieve famine in strife-torn Somalia.

I turned off the recorders to weigh unforeseen questions. Why not tape the president’s side of these conversations? That would preserve his actual performance—lobbying, cajoling, being president—in addition to his private memories. After all, Clinton had just contemplated the treasure of predecessors who taped both sides of their business calls. To record only his words would avoid the ethical drawbacks of taping others without their knowledge or consent. On the other hand, posterity would get only half the exchange—what I was hearing, without the senators’ interaction—which would be hard to decipher. Also, could the president himself be sure that recording would not inhibit him? How could we secure a vivid, accurate past without harming the present?

It seemed prudent on balance to tape, but there was precious little time to analyze such judgments. No sooner did Clinton finish with one senator than a White House operator buzzed with another on the line. He was on the phone before I could confirm my rationale with him, and I merely pointed to the little red lights on the recorders when I turned them back on. He nodded. I did not emphasize the gesture for fear of breaking his concentration, or of signaling alarm when I meant to convey assurance. The president worked his way through the list for more than half an hour. Harry Reid [Democrat of Nevada] is the most under-rated man in the Senate, he remarked between calls, then plunged again to solicit support. Can you help me out on this? he asked. He told them he had bent over backward to forge a compromise with Senator Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, who also favored immediate withdrawal, binding the administration to leave Somalia within six months unless Congress agreed otherwise.

Clinton said he hoped to be out sooner, but he advanced two main reasons for the flexible grace period. First, he wanted to restore some balance in fragile, starving Somalia. U.S. reinforcements this week had convinced General Aidid that he would pay very dearly for attacks, Clinton told the senators. He said his commanders just that day had secured the release of a Black Hawk pilot without making concessions. Killing Americans had enhanced Aidid’s local prestige, even though his own forces suffered nearly a thousand casualties, and too precipitous an exit by the United States would oblige the rival Somali clans to fight for gangland parity. Second, Clinton argued that McCain’s mandated retreat would undermine potential for international missions around the world. Japan, he told the senators, very reluctantly had supplied troops to a U.N. force that persevered through losses to help Cambodia establish a historic, underappreciated stability in the wake of Khmer Rouge atrocities. He said other nations closely watched our example. If the United States fled Somalia, it would become still harder to forge peacekeeping coalitions for Bosnia or the Middle East.

The Byrd compromise would narrowly prevail over McCain’s withdrawal amendment. With the senators, and on tape with me, President Clinton sifted the lessons from Somalia. He said he had allowed the United States to get caught up in a vengeful obsession. U.N. secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali had a hard-on for Aidid, he said, because a June attack that killed twenty-four Pakistanis was the worst single outrage yet inflicted on U.N. peacekeepers. Boutros-Ghali had secured an international arrest warrant, then called for participant nations in the Somali crisis to capture Aidid for trial. Against such pressure, Italian prime minister Carlo Ciampi had objected that a sheriff’s job would ruin the U.N.’s stated mission of humanitarian and political assistance. Ciampi proved wise, the president said with a sigh, but nobody paid much attention to Italian politicians.

Clinton recalled similar warnings from General Colin Powell, the outgoing chairman of his Joint Chiefs of Staff, that a targeted pursuit of Aidid would dominate and eventually displace key political efforts to reconcile factions throughout Somalia. Moreover, Powell had been skeptical of proposals for pinpoint operations in the sunbaked chaos of Mogadishu. He had predicted slim chances for an intelligence-driven snatch by elite units, but the president had given in to wishful optimism, despite hearing more than enough doubt to justify caution. He said Powell himself, in one of his last acts before retiring from the Army, had endorsed the confidence of U.S. generals that they could track down Aidid.

THE PRESIDENT DESCRIBED Powell as a skillful, well-spoken political manager who muffled his own opinions to broker consensus among diverse interests and personalities. This was a role Clinton admired, though in time he would perceive its limitations in Powell as a potential rival for the White House. After the phone calls on Somalia, he projected his characterization of Powell back to the controversy that engulfed his presidency from its first day, over a campaign promise to lift the ban on gay and lesbian soldiers. When the Joint Chiefs came to the Oval Office on the night of January 25, he recalled, Powell had deferred to his four service chiefs. The president sketched each vehement presentation, saying they objected to homosexual soldiers variously as immoral, inflammatory, and dangerous. He said Powell confined himself to more neutral observations about maintaining morale and cohesion, along with a formal pledge that the chiefs would obey the commander in chief in spite of their personal views. Privately, Clinton added, Powell advised him to discount the pledge because all the chiefs would communicate these views strongly to Congress, which could and would overturn any presidential order.

Powell was correct, said Clinton. Congress held sway. If he had issued an executive order, a super-majority stood poised not only to reinstate the ban on homosexual soldiers but to override any presidential veto. Support for ending the ban fell below 25 percent in Congress, he added. The president engaged a question about the introductory meeting with Democratic senators on the night of January 28. Pleasantries about the inauguration had mixed with worries over gay soldiers, he said, until elder statesman Robert Byrd changed the tone with his first words. Suetonius, the Roman historian, Clinton quoted Byrd, lived into the reign of Emperor Hadrian during the second century. According to Suetonius, Julius Caesar never lived down reports of a youthful affair with King Nicomedes of Bithynia (in modern Turkey), such that wags dared to mock the mighty emperor as every woman’s man and every man’s woman. Byrd told his colleagues and Clinton that for one senator, at least, this homosexual seed had something to do with the fall of the world’s greatest military empire.

On our tape, Clinton re-created Byrd’s speech with feeling. Byrd said homosexuality was a sin. It was unnatural. God didn’t like it. The Army shouldn’t want it, and Byrd could never accept such a bargain with the devil. Clinton said this classical foray rocked everyone back in their seats, and touched off discussions ranging from ancient Greece to cyberspace. Some senators noted that the Roman emperors won brutal wars for centuries while indulging every imaginable vice. (Augustus Caesar ravaged both sexes, wrote the gossipy Suetonius, and softened the hair on his legs with red-hot walnut shells.) Byrd invoked Bible passages. The president said, well, those verses may be so, but in the same Bible homosexuality did not make the top-ten list of sins. By contrast, he told the senators, the Ten Commandments did ban false witness and adultery, and they all knew that plenty of liars and philanderers were good soldiers. He said there were sharp stabs of tension in the Oval Office, leavened with astonishment at such a debate between senators and a brand-new president. I couldn’t tell, said Clinton, whether [Massachusetts Democrat] Teddy Kennedy was going to start giggling or jump out the window.

Sam Nunn of Georgia had interjected that adultery was in fact a punishable crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Yes, Clinton said he replied, but military investigators did not launch dragnets for unfaithful spouses or make recruits swear that they are not adulterers. From the start, he told them, his primary goal was ending the requirement that gay and lesbian citizens must affirmatively lie to serve in the armed forces. He wanted standards to rest on conduct rather than identity. If homosexual soldiers followed military discipline, and steered clear of infractions equivalent to harassment by heterosexuals, or unseemly displays, he felt their private behavior should stay private. The president said fellow Democrat Charles Robb had spoken up to agree, despite the political problems it would cause him in conservative Virginia. Robb, a Marine veteran, endorsed Clinton’s position as honorable and consistent. The Joint Chiefs, said the president, took almost the opposite view. They needed hypocrisy and demanded inconsistency. They tolerated homosexual troops by the tens of thousands so long as those troops stayed closeted and vulnerable. "It was a soldier saying he was gay that offended them more than the lies, Clinton recalled, and really more than the private behavior." If homosexual soldiers were allowed to be truthful, he explained, military commanders feared disruption or worse from a viscerally anti-gay core of their troops, which they estimated to run about 30 percent.

I asked whether the president thought political posturing on gay soldiers was more blatant than usual. Pentagon officials had floated the notion of segregated homosexual units. Critics sidestepped the essential choices by alleging that Clinton mishandled some unspecified solution, and, with photographers in tow, Senator Nunn and others toured the bowels of a Navy ship to shiver at the prospect of gay sailors in close quarters. On the tapes, Clinton came to Nunn’s defense. He deplored his White House staff, and Nunn’s own Senate staff, for leaking stories that Nunn was bitter about not being president, or secretary of defense. The president, however, said he accepted Nunn as a genuine social conservative in step with his constituencies in Georgia and the military. Beyond that, Clinton said he respected Nunn as a professional who cooperated across shifting lines of division. It was Nunn, he disclosed, who first proposed to him the six-month delay to fashion a suitable compromise, suggesting that only a public detour would get gay soldiers out of the headlines so Clinton could begin his chosen agenda.

The president was philosophical about the don’t ask, don’t tell policy that had emerged in July. To his regret, it enshrined the double standard he sought to remove. He quoted Hillary, who in turn was citing Oscar Wilde, that hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue. Over time, the president said, Americans would grow more comfortable with gay soldiers than with an official policy of winks and deceit. Public discourse about homosexuality, like its modern connotation for the word gay itself, was barely twenty years old. By historical timetables, a previously unmentionable taboo was gaining legitimacy at a rapid pace. Still, Clinton would be disappointed that military authorities kept finding ways around their promise not to ferret out homosexual soldiers for expulsion.

The president treated posturing as a natural element. He remarked, for instance, that he had no idea what Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas thought about the merits of gays in the military. He may genuinely be for it or against it, said Clinton. All our discussions have been about the politics. He said Dole advised him quite candidly that he intended to keep the issue alive as long as he could to trap Clinton on weak ground, where he would take a pretty good beating. Similarly, the president said Dole consistently advised that budgets were the most partisan matters between Congress and the White House, and that Clinton could expect to get few if any Republican votes for his omnibus bill on taxes and spending. Clinton said Dole spoke of the opposition’s job not as making deals but rather making the president fail, so he could be replaced as quickly as possible. In fact, he said Dole himself started running for president within ten days of Clinton’s inauguration. Every time he goes to Kansas, remarked the president, he stops off in New Hampshire on the way.

This was the first of many times that President Clinton spoke matter-of-factly about political warfare. He never begrudged survival and ambition in politicians, whether friend or foe. Indeed, he reveled in calculations from opposing points of view. These human assessments were among many intersecting factors that made politics so enthralling to him—including trends, accidents, strategy, communication, and precise election returns by district. He loved politics so much that he could speak almost fondly of his own defeats, seemingly because he had a prime seat to examine them in retrospect.

AT OUR FIRST session, he volunteered without a question that the two biggest failures of his presidency so far were the defeat of his economic stimulus package and his inability to lift the arms embargo in Bosnia. He said the stimulus package would have been a symbolically important public investment in jobs and economic growth, especially after worse-than-projected budget numbers had forced him to defer his campaign promise for a broad middle-class tax cut. His first mistake, said Clinton, was proposing the stimulus package first rather than together with his budget bill. The latter course would have emphasized how small the stimulus was relative to the overall deficit, but Clinton’s approach opened him to attack as another Democratic spendthrift. His second and bigger mistake, he added, was rejecting advice from his chief of staff, Mack McLarty, to bargain for the necessary votes by agreeing to trim the stimulus bill in Congress. Instead, said the president, he went for broke at the urging of Senator Byrd, chair of the Appropriations Committee, who predicted wrongly that enough opposing senators would give way in the end. The result was no stimulus bill at all. I asked whether Byrd may have gotten greedy from long years steering appropriations into his home state of West Virginia. There could be something to that, Clinton replied, but he said the bigger lesson was that reputations don’t count votes. In this case, his rookie chief of staff had proved more accurate than the venerated master of Senate history and procedure.

On Bosnia, the president said his government first had been divided over proposals for direct intervention to stop the infamous spasms of violence, the ethnic cleansing, that had plagued the former Yugoslavia since the end of the Cold War.* He said General Powell and others had recommended against various military options, arguing that air attacks were tempting and safe but could not compel a truce, and that ground troops would be exposed among hostile foreigners in difficult terrain. Within weeks, the new administration had explored ideas to relax the international embargo on arms shipments to the region, reasoning that the embargo penalized the weakest, most victimized nation of BosniaHerzegovina. Unlike its neighbors in Serbia and Croatia, the heavily Muslim population of Bosnia was isolated without access to arms smuggled across the borders. The Bosnian government wanted the embargo lifted so its people could defend themselves, thereby opening a chance for military balance among the antagonists that could lead to a political settlement.

* Beginning in 1992, four of the six provinces gained international recognition as independent countries: Slovenia, Macedonia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The remaining Yugoslav Republic consisted of Serbia and Montenegro, with a capital in Belgrade. Its president, Slobodan Milosevic, led protracted, irredentist wars to consolidate with ethnic Serbs elsewhere, meeting resistance especially in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Clinton said U.S. allies in Europe blocked proposals to adjust or remove the embargo. They justified their opposition on plausible humanitarian grounds, arguing that more arms would only fuel the bloodshed, but privately, said the president, key allies objected that an independent Bosnia would be unnatural as the only Muslim nation in Europe. He said they favored the embargo precisely because it locked in Bosnia’s disadvantage. Worse, he added, they parried numerous alternatives as a danger to the some eight thousand European peacekeepers deployed in Bosnia to safeguard emergency shipments of food and medical supplies. They challenged U.S. standing to propose shifts in policy with no American soldiers at risk. While upholding their peacekeepers as a badge of commitment, they turned these troops effectively into a shield for the steady dismemberment of Bosnia by Serb forces. When I expressed shock at such cynicism, reminiscent of the blind-eye diplomacy regarding the plight of Europe’s Jews during World War II, President Clinton only shrugged. He said President François Mitterrand of France had been especially blunt in saying that Bosnia did not belong, and that British officials also spoke of a painful but realistic restoration of Christian Europe. Against Britain and France, he said, German chancellor Helmut Kohl among others had supported moves to reconsider the United Nations arms embargo, failing in part because Germany did not hold a seat on the U.N. Security Council. Clinton sounded as though he were obliged to start over. He groped amid these chastening constraints for new leadership options to stop Bosnia’s mass sectarian violence.

In a less chilling tone, the president analyzed his administration’s early penchant for leaking stories to the press. He attributed nearly all the troublesome episodes to his own White House staff, as opposed to cabinet officers or bureaucrats, and he distinguished the leakers by motive and character. Whereas officials in most governments planted stories in order to influence policy, or to jockey for position against rivals, Clinton diagnosed his leaks as the product of youthful exuberance. He said they seemed to be ego-driven, from staff members eager to see their words in the news or prove they were the first to know something. Such leaks often were frivolous, whimsical, and inaccurate, he said. By playing to the swagger in his young aides, reporters elicited stories of froth that gave fodder to his political opposition. Clinton cited the uproar over one fictional report that he planned a luxury tax to keep rich people from buying supplementary health insurance. And by press fiat, before his first organizational meeting in the White House, a mischievous leak had vaulted gays in the military to the top of the national agenda.* The president complained that he had never really had a honeymoon in the press. Not for the last time, he said it was nettlesome to deal with sensational leaks rather than substantive politics, but he thought things were getting better.

* Eric Schmitt, The Inauguration/Clinton Set to End Ban on Gay Troops, New York Times, January 21, 1993, p. 1.

In reviewing his early failures to secure an attorney general, the president stressed the vagaries of political culture. He said he still admired the first choice, Zoë Baird, whose vetting for the post was all but complete when someone noticed that she had just paid her overdue employer’s share of Social Security taxes for two illegal immigrants working in her home. The tardy payment raised a fresh issue of fitness for the office, since the attorney general was responsible for the fair enforcement of immigration laws. Clinton said the climate turned so swiftly that her Senate confirmation was doomed before their first meeting, which became a poignant farewell instead of a potential clash. Baird spoke graciously, and behaved nobly, from his point of view. She went out before the press to fall on her sword, withdrawing her nomination.

His mood soured with first mention of the next choice, U.S. District Court Judge Kimba Wood. He had not yet asked her to become attorney general, Clinton insisted, or even agreed to do so. Instead, a staff member leaked her name, which hyped the nomination into a controlling reality. Then, when news emerged that Judge Wood had nanny tax problems, too, the president said she raised distinctions between her case and Zoë Baird’s to defend her prior assurances on this now very sore point. Clinton used the word livid several times to describe his reaction. He said her obtuseness about politics and public perception made him glad to pull the plug on a nomination he never made.

There was relief tinged with misgiving about his final selection, Janet Reno. Clinton’s close friend from Little Rock, political science professor Diane Blair, remembered Reno as a schoolmate of inspirational talent at Cornell. When he called to take soundings, Florida Democratic senator Bob Graham had described Reno, a Floridian, as a model prosecutor of intelligence, integrity, and drive. Clinton agreed with these assessments. He said Reno considered her opinions carefully, expressed them cogently, and fought for them very hard. Yet he also said there was something about her approach to the job that troubled him. He mentioned that when he asked her to replace the much criticized FBI director William Sessions, to get a fresh start as provided by law, Reno had demanded several months to make her own independent assessment before she concurred. He said she tended to remove herself from consultation like a judge, as sometimes required, and that she was not very good at reading her colleagues in government or providing overall direction. For Clinton, this impeded her management of the Justice Department’s many functions, from drug enforcement and prison policy to antitrust. Her aloofness weakened executive control vested in the president. More personally, it seemed to me, he was complaining that her astringent outlook on politics left them a mismatched, conversational dud.

Two aspects of his bumpy ride at the Justice Department carried over into Clinton’s choice for the Supreme Court. First, he said he had hoped to select a political justice, if possible, with a background and reputation in holding elective office. His goal was to restore appreciation for the Court as an integral branch of balanced government, rather than a technical specialty for lawyers and judges, and to redress decades of corrosive cynicism about politics. Second, when circumstances derailed his top political choices, Clinton said he ran into yet another snarl on the treatment of household employees. A review had revealed minor tax deficiencies for Judge Stephen Breyer, which he corrected. Then the president had read Breyer’s judicial opinions, and interviewed him personally among several finalists, before the nanny tax question re-emerged in subtler form. Judge Breyer had put two dates on his check to satisfy the amount due. The earlier one, written shortly after the resignation of Justice Byron Whizzer White in March, was scratched out in favor of a second date, weeks later, when Democratic governor Mario Cuomo of New York had publicly withdrawn from consideration. Taken together, said the president, the two dates could suggest that Judge Breyer was willing to pay this small, obscure tax only if necessary to secure a seat on the Supreme Court. He could be portrayed as both scofflaw and skinflint. The evidence was far from conclusive, but Clinton said it was enough to result in a petty public squabble, which might overshadow Breyer’s qualifications to become a fine justice.

IT WAS MIDNIGHT. President Clinton said he was too tired to finish describing his Supreme Court selection—a big subject—but he kept talking as though on automatic pilot. He mentioned numerous controversies including the disastrous, lethal FBI raid on sect leader David Koresh’s armed compound in Waco, Texas. I left the recorders running for a time to capture his unguarded reminiscence, then turned them off to rewind, fearing that Clinton might judge these sessions too meandering or exhausting. We were just beginning to establish a routine for our off-the-books history project, with only four or five people witting of its logistics. The president’s sole commitment was to send for me again if and when he found time.

I labeled each of the rewound microcassettes in ink, and gave them both to Clinton with a reminder of our talks on custody of the tapes. We had discussed several options for splitting up the duplicates in order to safeguard a backup if one set were lost, seized, or subpoenaed, but he accepted my recommendation that he keep all the tapes, personally, at least for now. In my view, no extra security from legal privilege or a separate custodian, including myself, outweighed the value of building up the president’s confidence that he could speak candidly for a unique, verbatim record under his control. I had promised to do everything I could to keep the project itself a secret. He said he had a good hiding place for the tapes. He planned to make first use of them for his memoirs, then eventually to release the transcripts at his presidential library.

Down through the Usher’s Office, on past an occasional Secret Service agent in the deserted White House corridors, my footsteps echoed as my mind raced. Had I asked the right questions? Too many or not enough? There were so many topics. My instinct was to intervene as little as possible by dangling neutral subjects for the president to engage or not, but he seemed to respond more vigorously to questions with a point of view. He asked what kind of information I thought future historians would find most useful, knowing that my own work for years had been sifting presidential clues from the civil rights era. Who could predict what posterity would care about, or judge to be right and wrong? In one sense, Clinton’s perspective seemed unremarkable, like a bull session between friends. However, it was also true that revelations lay hidden everywhere for specialists and regular citizens alike. A U.S. president was framing issues, telling stories, and thinking out loud. Inescapably, he let on what he did and did not notice inside the nation’s central bunker—what penetrated the walls of government and the clatter of opinion, and how he shaped and responded to what penetrated.

Here by design was raw material for future history, which filled me with excitement to preserve my own fresh but fleeting witness. I popped a blank microcassette into one of the recorders. For more than an hour on the drive home to Baltimore, finishing in the dark stillness of our driveway, I dictated every impression and detail I could remember. These instant recollections would become a habit, forming the basis for this book.



First Encounter

Katharine Graham Dinner

Monday, December 7, 1992

First Inauguration

Wednesday, January 20, 1993

Hearts and a Bargain

Two Families in the White House

Tuesday, September 28, 1993

Our new venture had started with convenience and a dusty friendship. From the first exploratory talks, Bill Clinton and I reconnected in shorthand reminiscence about our background as white Southerners who had come of age during the civil rights movement. Born into nonpolitical families, each of us was successively unmoored, inspired, and captivated by the reverberations of a democracy so profoundly enlarged. We had not seen each other since 1972, having drifted apart in the turmoil of that era, but we yearned for its core optimism. Twenty years later, we found ourselves using similar words, such as heal and repair. We thought history and modern politics were out of balance. His White House tapes project emerged from a fitful reunion of two graying baby boomers, one of whom was about to become President of the United States.

The first harbinger landed on our doorstep six days after the 1992 election. Like most newspapers, my hometown Baltimore Sun described the president-elect in a whirl—still resting but giddy, his voice recovered, jogging around Little Rock in a phalanx of security agents with occasional stops at Doe’s Eat Place or McDonald’s, charming old first-grade classmates and chatting about everything from his favorite cemetery to the $1.4 trillion federal budget. According to a front-page feature, Clinton assured a concerned friend on the street that he did not light his cigars, and he confessed finishing only one new mystery book, Private Eyes by Jonathan Kellerman, above a crush of reading for the transition. Clinton greeted well-wishers visiting Little Rock from many states including Maryland, said the Sun, emphasizing a local news angle. He was sad that thousands of election night celebrants had left town without his knowledge. He said, for instance, that Baltimore novelist Taylor Branch, a long-time friend, had come and gone ‘and I never saw him,’ the story concluded on an inside page. ‘I’m just sick about it. I’ll call him this week some time.’

The telephone started ringing. Friends teased me about getting promoted to novelist, especially those few who knew of my one forgettable experiment in published fiction. Strangers boldly forwarded messages and manifestos for the incoming president. A local charity booster tasked me to secure an old pair of Clinton’s running shoes for an HIV/AIDS benefit auction. Eager inquiries about whether the president-elect had called grew embarrassing. Traces of skepticism mingled with disappointment in people’s reactions, both to my denial of any word from Clinton and to the truthful story that my wife, Christy, and I made our only Little Rock trip spontaneously, without invitation or prior involvement in the presidential campaign of Clinton and Al Gore.

Some fifty thousand fellow pilgrims had gathered on election night near the Old State House in Little Rock, where, to control unprecedented crowds, the city lined the streets with Mardi Gras barricades borrowed from New Orleans. During the climactic vote count, we did not even try to find the campaign’s genial chief of staff, Eli Segal, with whom Christy and I each had worked independently as political reformers straight out of school, before we met each other. We did locate Judy Green, who had been a kind of surrogate mother in Washington to many activists against the Vietnam War. A generation later, she retained that presence in a full-time job as office manager for the Clinton-Gore headquarters in Little Rock, where her college-age daughter worked in James Carville’s much publicized War Room. Judy directed us through the chaos to mutual friends prowling the corridors of the Excelsior Hotel (now the Peabody), talking their way into celebrity suites on the rationale that high-powered people would have inside information on the presidential results. We tagged along, reminded of an unpleasant status frenzy in campaign politics, until I was pulled forward to introduce our roving intruders to Democratic fund-raiser Patricia Medavoy, whom I knew from a recent celebration lunch when her then husband, Mike, had acquired movie rights to Parting the Waters, my first Martin Luther King book, for his Hollywood studio, Columbia-TriStar Pictures. I had no apprehension yet that the film project would fail, but the option funds had made possible our Little Rock splurge.

We found the crowd downstairs backed up solid to the Excelsior Hotel entrance, pulsing with rumors that Clinton would make an appearance in front of the Old State House. Buyers snapped up victory T-shirts. It was cold, but an ice sculpture of the White House melted in the antiquated hotel lobby, where scattered enthusiasts let loose the Arkansas hog call. People outside climbed trees and stood on balconies draped in bunting, perched for a distant glimpse of Clinton across the way. We were blocked until a local guide led us sideways more than a hundred yards and down into a basement near the Arkansas River, where we followed at a trot through underground utility rooms, perhaps between buildings, fearing a dead end or worse but caught up by a wild itch to get ahead. Finally darting up through an alley door, trying to look like we belonged, we discovered ourselves in a sparser crowd off a corner of the Old State House. We shivered under big trees, still several security zones away, but we could see better in person than on the giant television monitors when the three Clintons stepped forth into the bedlam. They walked separately back and forth under the portico, waving. The president-elect was ebullient, if hoarse. He pledged to remember campaign stories from people of every kind, including those who had given up hope or had never before voted. This election, he declared, is a clarion call for our country to face the challenges of the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the next century.

Friends back home mercifully stopped asking whether Clinton ever followed through on his stated intention to call. This was a relief, because the questions had acquired an edge. Did he frequently break promises? Did I think his reported comment about me was generous or calculated? Even a tiny incident showed how hard it was to be neutral about a president, and the baffling newspaper quote folded into my larger ambivalence about politics. Personal observation on election night brought home many familiar, positive mannerisms in Bill Clinton—and for that matter, in Hillary—from our shared apartment long ago, but a nonstop career in Arkansas elections must have added layers of control. His Forgotten Middle Class campaign slogan made me wince at its resemblance to Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority. Clinton and politics had processed each other for the world stage, but how much did that make him a new creature? While I pulled for the best, and thrilled with hope from the election, our truncated friendship turned Bill Clinton into a greater mystery for me than if I had never known him.

THEN, SHORTLY AFTER Thanksgiving, someone from the transition office sent word that he wanted to see me. Christy and I drove to Washington on December 7, remembering the gated exterior of the Georgetown mansion owned by Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham from many trips with our two children to the public gardens and playground across the street. Full of puzzled anticipation, we knew only that fellow attendees would include Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke, for whom Christy worked as a speechwriter, and his wife, Patricia. It seemed silly to think a president-elect would initiate any business with mayors and amateurs at a dinner party, but if the invitation was purely social, we figured to be the stalest of FOB (Friend of Bill) guests. Christy had never met either Clinton, and my last contact—other than a passing wave in 1977—was packing up from a somber defeat as Texas coordinators in the 1972 presidential campaign of George McGovern, with the fresh sweethearts Bill and Hillary rushing back for makeup exams at Yale Law School.

This was different, with an atmosphere more imposing than the venue. Flashing police cruisers and ominous black SUVs dotted the approach. Many people arrived in their most sincere automobile, quipped an observer, anticipating a humbler Democratic fashion after twelve years of limousine Republicans, but a Rolls-Royce pulled up with the British ambassador. Clumps of people waited along the fence for a sighting of Clinton, and journalists screened the entrance because Mrs. Graham had declined to release the guest list. I just have to say it’s a private dinner, she told her own reporters before receiving newcomers sprinkled among potentates inside. I had met her once or twice through my early mentor, Charlie Peters, editor of The Washington Monthly. Vernon Jordan, chair of the Clinton transition team, introduced me as a frightened young graduate student he had hired to register black voters in the summer of 1969. Vernon enjoyed yarns from his background in civil rights, before success in corporate law, and I knew him well enough to joke that we all could have survived back then on his current tailoring budget for British and Italian dress shirts. My association was peripheral or less with the other guests, many of whom populated the news. Christy and I searched place cards carefully arranged through the rooms downstairs, finding hers at Vice President–elect Al Gore’s table of eight, seated between New York Times columnist William Safire and Democratic National Committee chair Ron Brown. Christy calmed herself as we moved on to remote areas. Under a tent outside, we inspected another dozen or so round caterer’s tables to the far end of the lawn, where my name turned up beside economist Alice Rivlin next to place cards waiting for Mrs. Graham and President-elect Clinton himself.

How could two virtual tourists be assigned such choice spots? A simple explanation seemed likely, but, being clueless, Christy and I told each other to enjoy the moment with no jobs or political appointments at stake. Muffled commotion at the gate announced the Clintons, who made their way slowly through the house. When they came near, and made introductions around, he announced brightly that he hadn’t seen me in years. He drew me deftly aside, whereupon two Secret Service agents stepped behind us to create a small barrier at the edge of the tent. It was like a dance step.

Can you believe all this? he confided with boyish delight. I said it was a lot to take in, and extended my congratulations. He mentioned recent contact with a couple of people we had known together in Texas. I could only smile at the memory of these vivid characters and regret losing track of them. He said he was proud of me for the years of effort it took to write Parting the Waters. It’s good, he said, emphasizing that he had read more than the long narrative text. A lot of the footnotes came from presidential libraries, Clinton observed. His tone changed. He said the book made him think of two questions, or favors. First, did I think historians fifty years from now would find good enough raw material in his own library to recapture the inner dynamics of his presidency, as I was trying to do for the John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson years? Second, would I outline some thoughts for him on themes of generational change? Not only the upcoming millennium and the end of the Cold War, he suggested, but also what it meant for two Southerners to head the winning presidential ticket so soon after the stigma of segregation.

Promising of course to send some thoughts on the generations, I jumped to his question about presidential libraries. I told him the preservation of White House records was a vital but obscure field, changing rapidly. Whole new windows were opening on the past but closing for the future. Ironically, it was getting harder in the information age to preserve accurate minutes of high-level government meetings. I started to explain how we were oddly indebted to Oliver Stone’s conspiracy film on the Kennedy assassination for prying open the first release of actual LBJ telephone recordings in what seemed to be an enormous secret trove.

By then Clinton was nodding. The small dam of people waiting to meet him was about to break. When he moved on, I tried to absorb the surprises from the two-minute reunion. By reconnecting across barriers of time and reserve, not to mention the distraction of Secret Service agents, he triggered awareness of the rare person with whom you can pick right up again no matter how or when you left off. Whatever divided us, the bonded foundation of twenty-five-year-old dreamers was still there. At the opposite extreme, Clinton sent an impersonal and cerebral message of equal intensity. He was preparing for history even before taking office. No doubt he yearned to build a shining record from the seat of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, but he inquired about historical tools and sensors that could amplify his legacy either way, good or bad. In reaching out to me and my footnotes, Clinton sent a laserlike message about the relationship between his profession and mine. Could he know that he was touching on some of the most difficult issues in presidential historiography? He raised farsighted questions from a premise that politics and history shape each other through the political culture, where the national heritage and prevailing sensibilities intersect with everyday life.

Mrs. Graham led an exchange of toasts after dinner. They were pleasant but scripted until Clinton stood to reply. Speaking without notes, he confronted a gaping fissure between voters and their national government. He said candidates had won power all his adult life by running against Washington, which over time distorted and degraded the American experiment. Clinton challenged the establishment figures before him to restore balance. They should shift from internal feuds and intrigues to the substantive goals that had inspired a distinctive national politics in the first place. Washington is a better place than most people think it is, he declared. He gave personal thanks to one of the most iconic guests, revealing that Robert McNamara, both Kennedy’s and Johnson’s secretary of defense and a chief architect of the Vietnam War, had written him a letter of wrenching belief that a Clinton presidency could help those still scarred by the Vietnam War find a higher patriotism in the strength of their disagreements.* I hope to bring more of the country to the capital, Clinton concluded, and more of the capital to the country. His toast moved skeptics to their feet. William Safire conceded that only a masterful tone could win over the high-tension crowd. Opponents and insiders buzzed with approval.

* Clinton only paraphrased the letter at the Graham dinner. What moved McNamara to write was a news story about the ordeal of Clinton’s friendship with his Oxford University housemate, Frank Aller, who had resisted conscription for the Vietnam War and committed suicide in 1971. Clinton would quote from McNamara’s letter in his 2004 autobiography, My Life: For me—and I believe for the nation as well—the Vietnam War finally ended the day you were elected president. By their votes, the American people, at long last, recognized that the Allers and the Clintons, when they questioned the wisdom and morality of their government’s decisions relating to Vietnam, were no less patriotic than those who served in uniform.

THE GRAHAM DINNER was a fleeting triumph for Clinton, who would be estranged from Washington’s permanent leaders. Its effect lasted longer on me. For years, my goal had been bringing presidents and other historical figures to life on the page by penetrating the myths that encase them. Yet my own political culture led me to project a coating of wax and mechanized motives onto someone I actually knew—only now to feel a jolting revelation that he was essentially the same person. Should this have been obvious, or should it put me all the more on guard against being snookered? Both thoughts were disconcerting. My instinctive resolve was to keep revising personal judgments about a friend while giving the president-elect all the civic respect due his office.

The fax machine transmitted my reflections on generational change, as requested. (Should you want to kick any of this around, or have me work on some language, send the word, I wrote Clinton. Christy and I are bursting with hope and prayers for you.) No further word came, as the president-elect disappeared into headlines about cabinet appointments and his two-day economic summit in Little Rock. Silence on generational change was almost a relief, as I had little to add on a vague topic that invited pontification, but his question about footnotes and future libraries still fascinated me with the range of Clinton’s mind. Could he really be making decisions now on that specialized, low-priority item? I suppressed an urge to volunteer advice, thinking the initiative properly belonged to him.

My friend and former book editor, Dan Okrent, called to say the Clinton people accepted a last-minute, long-shot proposal for a Life magazine photo essay at Clinton’s elbow on inauguration day, only two days hence. They had selected my name from a list of possible writers for the text, if I would agree. Dan assured me that Life wanted neither objective criticism nor a friend’s personal story, and that Clinton apparently trusted me to write an accurate but descriptive account. This temporary assignment put me into quite an uproar, shifting me back into the rush of journalism after years of work in history, then back again when another caller urgently invited me to a private rehearsal for the inaugural address, saying the president-elect wanted my historical opinion.

At Blair House, the official guest residence across from the White House, speechwriters David Kusnet and Michael Waldman gave me a draft headed 1/19/93, 4am, 1899 words. It was then ten o’clock, six hours later, and they had beaten by one word their mandate to get the address as short as JFK’s famous Ask not speech of 1961. Tommy Caplan arrived shortly with a large lipstick stain on his collar and a single-spaced memo of suggested insertions for the address. I thought Caplan, whom I barely knew as a fellow writer from Baltimore, sweet-tempered and eccentric, had misconstrued our role in a review panel for the finished product, but it quickly turned out that he had a far clearer idea of Clinton’s work habits, having remained a steadfast friend since college. The president-elect was rewriting the first half of the address in the master suite. When he joined us in its sitting room, aides who could decipher his handwriting pitched into transcribing what he had written while Clinton polled the group. He seconded a general call for better tempo and refrain, saying he wanted more spiritual lift. George Stephanopoulos, Clinton’s chief adviser for this meeting, introduced himself in my direction with a sheepish announcement: Taylor, I hate to say it, but this session is off the record. I said fine, as my Life assignment was only for the next day, and this seemed to clear me for work on an ad hoc team revising what we named the Thomas Jefferson section.

More than twelve hours later, we reconvened in the elegant second-floor library at Blair House. My note to myself from one of several short breaks minimized our contributions so far: I think a fair summary is that while everyone seems to be pleasant, they are adapted to the notion that the inaugural address will be written largely by Bill himself at the last minute. The Clintons and Gores returned well after midnight from a black-tie concert. Hillary kicked off her shoes and stood at the lectern to read my copy of the latest draft, headed 1/20/93, 12:05 AM, 1609 words. She said it was fine and went off sensibly to bed. The rest of us offered comments as Clinton read out loud from the lectern. Speech coach Michael Sheehan timed successive versions with a stopwatch, but seldom got through a whole draft because Clinton stopped frequently to invite debate over phrases and individual words, asking, "How does this sound?" He trimmed programmatic lists for political reasons, saying every list left you vulnerable to those not included. The speech got shorter, as suggested additions still fared poorly. About four o’clock, Al Gore recommended sleep for the long day about to dawn, and Clinton yielded. He remarked wryly that he could not miss work the first moment he would earn more than Hillary, on a big raise from his governor’s salary of $35,000. As we disbanded, a weary young Army technician rolled his eyes when I asked if his TelePrompTer duty often lasted so late. Speech rehearsals with Clinton’s predecessor, George H. W. Bush, were scheduled for brief intervals, he said, and never went past five in the afternoon.

The Blair House foyer crackled with adrenaline less than four hours later. From a national security briefing, Clinton went by motorcade to Metropolitan AME Church for an inaugural prayer service that woke me up with the joyful music and ecumenical hope characteristic of a mass meeting in the heyday of the civil rights movement. Among the speakers came Imam Wallace D. Muhammad, reciting Quranic verses of peace in Arabic and English. An ally of Malcolm X in his youth, Muhammad had gone on to reform his own father’s sectarian Nation of Islam. In a book interview, he once had expressed to me his long-term ambition for American Muslims to help reconcile world Islam with democracy. I considered Muhammad the nation’s most underappreciated religious figure in the twentieth century, but here he was preaching unnoticed to the incoming Clintons, soon followed by Martin Luther King’s former colleague Gardner Taylor. It is as if we have come again to Camelot, Taylor began merrily, but this time with the atmosphere of the Ozarks. His jokes elicited peals of laughter, and he preached earnestly from the tenth chapter of Luke. In between, Reverend Taylor’s precise diction achieved a thunderous rhythm about politics. We are here to establish before the world that people can be brought together, he declared, in the highest and most difficult undertaking known to the unity of men and women. That people can govern themselves. This is the American proposition in history.

On the front row, Clinton nodded his head to agree as the packed congregation burbled with cries of amen. He turned especially to Gore, and was on the same theme when he pulled me through to a huddle on the sidewalk back at Blair House. Were they giving my speech in there or what? he exclaimed above the noise. People lined the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, some of them shouting and dancing, oblivious to one severe-looking woman with a crude poster: MR. CLINTON DO NOT MOCK GOD. Nearly a hundred press photographers toed a yellow line in the street like a firing squad. Clinton said he had just been telling Al and Tipper Gore how he had met the participants in the service. Gardner Taylor was Vernon Jordan’s idea to avoid picking a main speaker from the contending bishops and major denominations. Vernon said bring Gardner down here and he will get you ahead of all the church politics, Clinton told us, adding that he must mean a lot to me. I said yes, and ventured that Reverend Taylor made me think of a line from Martin Luther King for the very end of the inaugural address, just before Clinton was to invoke trumpets and changing the guard: From this mountaintop of celebration, we hear a call to service in the valley. Clinton mulled this over as people jostled from behind. Stephanopoulos said, We have room to let go if you want. I said the quote marked King’s defining course against comfort and his own advisers, straight down from the Nobel Prize ceremony to begin his perilous crusade for voting rights in Selma. Yeah, Clinton said tentatively. Let’s write that down.

He paused to introduce Tommy Caplan’s father, but held back our sidewalk huddle to tell us that the sermon made him think we should add a clause about never taking democratic ideals for granted. We agreed on a section where it would belong, then traded wording as we pushed through the Blair House entrance up the stairs to sanctuary. With his speech team reassembled from various nap spots, Clinton announced that both Hillary and Chelsea adamantly opposed the sentence we must love one another in his summons to civic engagement. They preferred care for one another. Stephanopoulos made what he called one last argument for love, but Clinton said the women thought the word would be interpreted not so much as soft but flaky, the way many people had thought of Jimmy Carter. Okay, no love, Stephanopoulos conceded, moving to make the correction at the TelePrompTer machine. I joined him there with trepidation when Clinton pointed for me to supply the exact wording of the two sidewalk changes, including a new clause in the foreign policy summation: But our greatest strength is the power of our ideas, which are still new in many lands. Aides clamored to emend texts being held for worldwide release, while others crowded around the lectern where Clinton was comparing three renditions of a Bible verse in the speech.

With all due respect! a big voice rang out. Can we get to work? It was Al Gore from his center chair in the library. He voted for the King James translation, which carried, and the cacophony died to a whisper. Speech coach Sheehan warned Clinton not to expect any of the usual audience response to help him gauge pace in the address, because his outdoor crowd would seem miles below the West Capitol platform. Gore seconded the pointers on delivery, telling Clinton that Sheehan needs your full attention on this. The president should pause briefly and then relaunch after each applause line, as though lifted to a higher plane. When Gore blessed the final rehearsal—This is a winner—the room evacuated behind Clinton, who was late to meet outgoing President Bush for their joint ride to Capitol Hill. Stephanopoulos had a Marine driver waiting to rush us with the first printed copies along empty streets blocked off for the inaugural parade. We split up in the Rotunda. He went to find the leadership chamber, telling guards that Clinton will go crazy any minute without a speech to study during the ceremony. I waited with a backup copy at the top of the stairs, and the inaugural procession swept me down to the front rows overlooking the Mall.

Circumstance thus placed me among Supreme Court justices and other prime dignitaries of the United States for the transfer of power, uniquely without a seat. Calls to stand for prayer and observance were a welcome relief, as I was otherwise obliged

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  • (4/5)
    A very long detailed account of conservations with Bill Clinton over major issues and minor problems. Can get bogged down in the details. These conversations took place over eight years. I began at the beginning then skipped to the end and began reading backwards. Recommend skimming this book.
  • (4/5)
    After being elected President in 1992, Bill Clinton reached out to a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian that he had last seen 20 years before, Taylor Branch. Both men had worked for the 1972 George McGovern presidential campaign, but had drifted apart. While Clinton gained prominence in politics, Branch only become widely noticed when he published the first volume of his trilogy on the Civil Rights Era, "Parting the Waters," which was a much recognized best-seller.Thinking about the legacy of his presidency even before his inauguration, Clinton contacted Branch to feel him out on finding a way of preserving the raw material of his presidency in the electronic age. After sporadic contact, they eventually decided to create an oral history of Clinton's presidency, with Branch acting as interviewer. Despite the fear of recording audio tapes, especially after the Watergate era, the project began.After the first session, Branch decided to preserve his own impressions and recollections of the experience, a practice he continued each time he met with the president. "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President" is Branch's perspective of the entire oral history process, drawn from his personal post-interview tapes, not the actual oral history recordings, which Clinton himself kept.While Branch is a fine historian, as his magisterial Civil Rights trilogy proves, he is far from an uninterested or impartial observer. Throughout, he is a devoted partisan supporter of the president, and it quickly becomes obvious that he personally likes Clinton. Beyond this, Branch's wife worked for the First Lady during the second term, which further blurs the personal and professional relationship. At times, this leads Branch to be defensive of Clinton, particularly regarding issues around the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment.While this is occasionally a weakness in the book, more often it is a surprising strength as the blurred relationship allowed Branch uncommon access to Clinton. Unlike some so-called "court memoirs" of White House staffers, this behind-the-scenes account offers snapshot glimpses into Clinton's presidency, haphazardly based on the few dozen times Branch was invited to meet with the president during his two terms. The portrait that emerges is intriguingly candid, especially about the more mundane parts of a president's life, such as his irregular eating schedule, telephone interruptions, stolen moments with family and friends, and his emotional outlook, frequently related to his fatigue level.There is a wealth of material on Clinton's outlook on domestic policy and foreign affairs, and many instances of his unique political sensibilities. In particular, some of Clinton's contemporary assessments of various foreign leaders and attempts to shape the world are interesting. His comments about the large issues of his presidency, perhaps less noteworthy because they so frequently correspond to what has been reported elsewhere, still demonstrate the former's president's insatiable curiosity and love of politics.Overall, the book is a valuable addition to similar volumes on Clinton's presidency. At times, Branch is a quirky guide, but more often he unveils a personal side to the 42nd president, whether through the various ways he encounters Clinton or in such things as Christmas gift exchanges. While future historians will greatly appreciate the oral history, whenever it is released, I imagine they will also glean much from the personal descriptions in "The Clinton Tapes."
  • (4/5)
    Expertly written, Taylor Branch’s memoir of his taping sessions with the president is fascinating history in its own right. It took me longer to read than I had originally anticipated; as a journal of his experiences, the only intact narrative thread is chronological. Subjects veer off and disappear to be replaced at random with new (and often entirely unrelated) segues and fleeting impressions. It’s something of a revelation that this kind of patchwork journalism does, in fact, leave the reader with a clear and vibrant portrait of both Clinton and his presidency.While the gossipy anecdotes are sure to provide fodder for cocktail conversation, the substance of the book can be found principally in the extended descriptions of Clinton’s forays in international diplomacy. Governing, in some respects, is much more about politics than we often realize; a reality at odds with the conventional view that the “permanent campaign” pitfalls of a 24-hour news environment have corrupted the political process. In other words, the sympathetic view of Clinton presented in this book is a natural consequence of high political stakes being met by a first-class political mind.For those who might think that Taylor Branch is too sympathetic to Clinton to be able to write about him objectively, I suggest that they read his civil rights trilogy. He’s too smart to allow himself to be cast as a blatantly sycophantic propagandist; he acquits himself here with grace, intelligence and an appropriate level of deference.
  • (1/5)
    I searched Scribd. for professional wrestling and this book was among the search results. Why?